A U.S. proposal to establish a storage site for spent nuclear fuel on a Pacific island has drawn an almost unanimously negative response from Asian countries.
Their reaction ranges from indifference to outright hostility. Some object on the ground that the stored spent fuel would represent a serious environmental hazard. Others resist because they want to reprocess their own fuel someday to generate electric power and they see the U.S. plan to avoid reprocessing as a threat to their goal of energy independence late in the century.
The opposition has created a problem for American officials who view the storage of spent fuel for up to 30 years as an important step in a world-wide policy to slow or block the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Early this year, State Department officials began approaching several Asian countries with a plan to store spent fuel and proposed studies to determine if an island -- Wake, Midwayor Palmyra -- could be used as the site by sometimes late in the 1980's.
Since February, the have been urging Japan to join in a feasibility study to determine which if any of the islands would be suitable. So far Japan has not responded definitely and a recent meeting here produced only a vague pledge to consider participating.
Even it Japan joined in the study, it has no intention of storing its spent fuel on such an island. The builders of Asia's most highly developed nuclear energy program are going ahead with plans to construct a reprocessing plant the would create a vast new energy source late in the century. To make it work, officials emphasize, Japan will want to reprocess most of its spent fuel, not store it.
The United States is strongly opposed to reprocessing in many countries because out of it would come plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. In the long range, U.S. officials believe reprocessing will lead to the proliferation of nuclear warheads, although Japan insists it has no intention of producing such weapons.
Japan is gearing up now for its first commercial-scale reprocessing center. It should be ready to operate in 1990, according to Atsuhiko Yatabe, director general for scientific and techological affairs of the Foreign Ministry. The Japanese parliament this year passed legislation permitting power companies to build it.
When the center is ready, Yatabe said, Japan either will reprocess or store spent fuel in Japan and will have no need for a storage site on a Pacific island. It is willing to discuss participating in the feasibility study but has made no decision to join in it and pay half the cost as the Americans ask, he said.
To a certain extent, Japan is vulnerable to U.S. pressure on the issue because it obtans virtually all of the enriched uranium used in domestic power plants from American sources. It ships the spent fuel now to Britain and France for reprocessing and each shipment requires U.S. approval. Officials here indicate that if Japan ever does participate in the storage facility feasibility study it will be as a gesture to pacify American interests and guarantee the shipments to Europe are allowed to continue.
In addition to Japan, countries that the United States has hoped would store spent fuel at the island site someday are South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. But the Korean government has let it be known that it, like Japan, is not interested in overseas storage.
News stories emanating from government sources in Seoul assert that , ultimately, Korean spent fuel will be stored in that country. South Korea now has one atomic power plant and plans to have about 40 by the end of this century.
Taiwan and the Philippines, which lag behind in the nuclear power field, have not replied formally to the U.S. suggestion.